I’ve been battling with a short story for what feels like a thousand years. It’s actually been less than three months which is probably not THAT long given that it has quite a high word count but it’s going so badly that I feel as if I’m losing the war.
As the months have dragged on, I’ve had more than one crisis of confidence. I’ve kept myself awake at night with cringing thoughts: the story is bad, the writing is bad, I’m a bad writer, my stories are hollow and pointless, the sci part of my sci fi is non-existent, and my imagination is pathetic. I’ve had every negative thought a writer can have. I’ve wanted to give up, run away, drown myself, change my name and move to Darkest Wales. More than once, I’ve wanted to dump the whole story and write the main character into something else but since I can’t get him further than having a cup of coffee in some noirish setting, that’s not an option.
After these black thoughts, I try to rally and remember all the advice I’ve given over the years about writing. Somewhere I have a list of actions I’ve undertaken to get through these proverbial bad patches. You’d think that by now I’d know all these remedies by heart. Now that I need them, I can’t remember a single one of them! Am I honestly going to have to go and look at ancient blogs and work out how I got out of a fix? The biggest piece of advice I seem to recall adhering to was walking away. Taking a break. Going to do something else, even if it’s just washing the bath or talking a walk or catching the bus to the end of the line. Another useful piece of advice is to leave it alone. This is the same as walking away and doing something else, but I mean in terms of writing: actually going to write something else. In other words, start or continue another project. Assuming that one has another project to work on, of course. In my case, I have several. I have so many series that I worry I’ll actually finish them this lifetime. But if one is working on something big and it’s hard going, then perhaps, when taking a break from it, one could work on something small. Like very short short-stories. As a “short story” for me is nothing less than 10k words, “very short” would be, perhaps, 1 – 2k words. Practically an essay. The only option I would not consider is not writing at all. A short break, sure, of a few days. A week even. But not months. That way insanity lies.
There’s a lot of pressure on this particular short story, which doesn’t help. Time is the first factor. My daughter comes home from uni soon (sometime in July, we think) and my writing schedule gets wrecked when I’m not alone. This isn’t my daughter’s fault – it’s entirely my own. I just can’t concentrate with someone else in the flat. My attention wanders. My thoughts get diluted. I can’t lose myself in my work. I can’t be weird the way writers need to be weird when they’re writing. So I really, really want this story done before she comes home. This gives me about a month to get it straight.
The second factor is the placement of the story. It’s the last story in the second volume of The Exodus Sequence. Its function is to tie up many loose threads as well as provide a big enough cliff-hanger to drive the reader into the third volume. I should add that the third volume, at the moment, is utterly blank. I have only the vaguest notion where the story could go. I also don’t want the third volume to be another set of connected short stories, which means a novel. A huge novel. Another series to finish. The thought of this is just daunting. But before I get there, I need to finish this one. It needs to be good. The main character of the series finally has a starring role and his tale needs to be a memorable one. Just when I need my writing to be at its best, I seem to have forgotten how to write at all.
Why, I’ve asked myself many times, could I not have been a writer who invented ONE universe and set MANY books in the one universe, all straightforward stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories that were entertaining and clever and funny and fun. Stories that people liked to read. I seem to have completely bypassed the sensible writing career path. I’ve spent my life hurling myself into difficult tales that are hard to realise on the page and even harder to understand. But before I dig myself yet another coffin hole of despair, let me look at The Exodus Sequence itself and outline its difficulties.
The first volume is a collection of connected short stories. While the connections are obvious to me, I have an idea that they are not wildly obvious to the reader. The first volume, which you can read about here on my website, is really an introduction to the White Shadow race who live on created moons in our solar system. Each story leads to a familiar-looking alien. Of the nine short stories in the volume (the tenth isn’t really part of the Exodus canon), five are from the point of view of humans with the remaining four from those of White Shadow characters. Of those four, two are about the same character – the main character – but you’d never know it. The Exodus stories cover a huge range of time and the first story in the volume actually occurs towards the end of all the events … but of course, the reader doesn’t know that either.
The first story in the first volume is called Wired, which you can read about here. All the stories in the first volume were also published as standalone shorts. Wired has only received one review, a bad one, by a reader who commented that the story doesn’t have a proper ending. Well, of course it doesn’t: it’s part of a whole sequence of stories and to get the full story, who need to read all of them, preferably in the order they are listed in the collection. You’re probably beginning to see how hard I’ve made this for myself and for the reader. From a writing point of view, relating the Exodus story has been very challenging to say the least.
Getting back to my current short story, the one that is slowly killing me off as a writer: called Scaped, the story picks up directly from Wired. This would satisfy that disgruntled reader should he ever bother to come back to my books. The main character, Omen, appears in another story in the first volume: Experienced (which you can read about here). He gets mentioned a lot in other stories and is clearly a main player. Just exactly who the main players are becomes much clearer in the second volume. Having introduced the idea of the White Shadows in volume 1, volume 2 concentrates on the plot and character building. We get a lot of back history and some futuristic fun as well. Time swings from an era set millions of years ago to several hundreds of years in the future.
Volume Two opens with Shattered (which you can read about here) and which has already been published as a novella. The second story is Shot which has been published in a volume of mixed short stories called The Nightmarist (which you can read about here). Shattered was hard to write but only because there were a lot of characters. Shot, on the other hand, was fantastically easy to write as the female character had lived inside my head chatting away furiously for a year. I then took a break from the Exodus Sequence universe to enter a completely different universe before coming back in the autumn of 2021 for a long haul.
The next six stories were relatively easy to write. Unusually for Exodus Sequence stories, I wrote those six stories one after another. The stories and characters, by this volume, had become so closely interlinked that it was easiest just to keep going. Of those six stories, four need editing, one is perfect, and one needs a completely new draft (i.e. a rewrite). All these stories were heading directly towards Scaped so it should have been easy to write! These are the problems I’m encountering:
- My imagination appears to have run dry.
- I can’t find the story’s style. All the Exodus Sequence stories are experiments in style and genre, which is what makes them so much fun to write, but this one illudes me. Everything I’ve tried so far has failed.
- I don’t know my main character. You’d think that I would by now. But you don’t get inside his head at all in Wired. And in Experienced, you are so far inside his head that you have no context. He undergoes a major transformation at the start of Scaped, so that doesn’t help either. He’s basically a new character, one I can’t get a handle on.
- The story meanders like a flooded river. I’ve completely failed to find a structure for it. Not all stories need a structure. This one does.
- I am drowning in information. Trying to work out how much to reveal and when is a major problem.
- I have to wrap up ALL the Exodus Sequence stories that precede this one, a humongous task. And possibly impossible.
- All the themes I’d constructed for this story have had to be dumped. I wanted the reader to feel how distanced Omen is from everyone, how he can’t connect, how he can’t read people. I’ve had to chuck all of this because it didn’t work.
- I had to change from 3rd person to 1st person in the 4th draft, which is a huge stylistic change and means losing at least half of what I’ve already written.
- I can’t find the story’s goal. I thought I had it. But it still feels pointless which means I’ve failed to convey the central idea and, indeed, am no longer sure what the central idea is.
- It has a human character in it I can’t stand. I don’t mean that I dislike the character but he is all over the place and I can’t either find his core.
- The story was, originally, going to be heavy and dense, like Experienced, but this failed utterly when I reached the character mentioned in #10 because he’s too funny. It’s great that he’s funny but it doesn’t go with the tone of the story, hence the change of tone for the whole thing, which ultimately means the whole thing doesn’t work.
Looking at these eleven points makes me realise just how much I’ve failed with this story. I mean, the failures are on every level! I have considered that I’m all written-out. I haven’t stopped to take breath with my writing since the end of summer last year. I pushed myself hard, with no breaks, because my personal life was falling to pieces in a most spectacular fashion. Writing became my only solace. It was the thing that kept me going. And I fear that if I stop now and don’t finish this bloody terrible story, I will end up broken. Another failure on top of everything else would be too much to bear.
So despite the fact that all my instincts say LEAVE THIS ALONE, despite my writing skills having deserted me, despite my imagination having apparently died, I have to keep going. I have to keep hammering at this story. A whole new fifth draft begins tomorrow with a new opening paragraph. Let’s see where it takes me.
Here are those links again:
The Exodus Sequence: https://www.susannahjbell.com/exodus-sequence.html
The Nightmarist: https://www.susannahjbell.com/the-nightmarist-and-other-stories.html